From the outset of the 2016 World Series of Poker main event final table, this particular group of players was lauded as one of the strongest main event final tables of the November Nine era across the board.
There were players with millions of dollars in live tournament cashes, plus players with some of the most spectacular online poker resumes of the past decade, to say nothing of the coaches that these players brought along to help them play their absolute best. The two exceptions, Qui Nguyen and Fernando Pons, were the wild cards at this final table. They came in with none of that pedigree, but their unpredictability made them dangerous in another way entirely.
While Pons came in with almost no chips and made a quick exit, Nguyen has imposed his will and picked up big hands at key times. For the second consecutive night at the WSOP main event final table, Nguyen holds a commanding chip lead and only two players stand between him, $8 million and the most coveted championship in all of poker.
It has been a miraculous ride, and Nguyen has come an inconceivable distance from his initial journey to immigrate to the United States from Vietnam. Simply put, everything is clicking at precisely the right time.
“I’m playing the best [poker] of my life, that’s true,” Nguyen said. “Anything can happen at the table, but I can only play the best that I can, for all of my friends and family.”
There’s still the matter of those other two players who, while currently outgunned by Nguyen’s staggering 197.6-million-chip stack, have the experience and support to mount a counter-offensive when play resumes Tuesday evening inside the Penn & Teller Theater. Cliff Josephy, the chip leader at the start of the final table, now sits as the short stack with 50 million. He’s the only one of this trio who has previously closed out a WSOP final table, having previous won two bracelets in his career.
Gordon Vayo, who enjoyed a brief stretch as the chip leader on the second day of this final table, also has some ground to close with 89 million. With his support system, which includes primary coach Tom Marchese, and the work he’s put in over the past three-plus months, Vayo is confident that he’ll put forth a singular effort on the final day of this tournament.
“I like this break, because now I can spend more time with my coach, and I just have so much faith in him,” Vayo said. “Our preparation has been very deliberate, and it’s allowed me to have a cohesive strategy -- to feel comfortable and confident in a lot of spots.”
While it certainly ended well, Nguyen’s day didn’t start out quite so cheery. Vojtech Ruzicka controlled some of the earliest action Monday evening, with a pair of pots that pulled him past Josephy into second place. That positive momentum would not last long. Before Ruzicka had his fall from grace, it was Nguyen taking his first serious licks at this final table. Michael Ruane got a much-needed early double up through Nguyen, putting things on fairly even pegging for the final players as Nguyen briefly dropped below 100 million and Ruane climbed back to 48 million.
There were a number of big pots early on in five-handed play, and Ruzicka simply couldn’t help but get himself involved in a pair of eerily similar pots that ultimately led to his demise in a stretch of just three hands. In the first, Ruzicka raised preflop, Josephy called to see a flop of Qc-8s-4c. Ruzicka fired on both the flop and the 3d turn, only to let it go on the river. Two hands later, Vayo raised, Ruzicka three-bet and Vayo called to have a virtually identical Qc-8d-3c flop. This time, Ruzicka not only bet the flop and the 7h turn, he pushed all-in on the 5s river. The craziest element of all? Both times his opponent held pocket eights for a flopped middle set, and while he got away the first time, Ruzicka lost a 108-million-chip pot -- the biggest of this tournament so far -- with just A-K.
In the aftermath, Ruzicka had no real regrets about the hand that derailed his run in the 2016 WSOP main event.
“I just felt like, on the turn, that I was ready to bluff the river,” Ruzicka said. “And it was a good river for my range -- I just walked into his best possible hand.”
Ruzicka lost his last big blind on the following hand to Nguyen, and that continued an active run that stretched to three straight eliminations once Nguyen ultimately ousted Ruane in fourth place.
In the meantime, Nguyen regained the lead, trading it back and forth for a stretch with Vayo as Josephy's and Ruane’s stacks got closer and closer together. Josephy would ultimately take almost half Ruane’s stack when he flopped top pair with ace-jack on a Jd-Td-8s board and turned three of a kind against Ruane’s massive draw with Qd-8d. That pot got Josephy back over 75 million, but dropped Ruane into a slow downward spiral he would never truly emerge from.
Nguyen's tactical aggression was clear and successful later on Day 2, taking chunk after chunk out of the stacks of Vayo and Josephy while Ruane stole the occasional set of blinds with an all-in. Finally, Ruane three-bet all-in with Kh-Qh and Nguyen called with Ah-Js. The 9h-9s-2s flop offered little respite for Ruane, but the Jc, while it paired Nguyen, increased Ruane’s outs from six to 10 with one card to come. The Jc river brought a disappointed reaction filled with exaggerated sighs from Ruane’s supporters -- the loudest throughout the first two days of the final table -- while the rest of the crowd cheered for their players.
Ruane, surrounded by those same supporters in the hallway shortly after his elimination, alluded to just how incredible his experience at this final table had been thanks in large part to his friends and family -- a group that continued to cheer him throughout his interview.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd,” Ruane said. “My rail was amazing, updating stacks and chips, [but] I assume the celebration is going to be pretty crazy, even if it’s half as crazy as these guys were in the crowd today.”
Play was initially scheduled to conclude once three players remained, and while Nguyen, Josephy and Vayo played 11 hands, a decision to wrap up the final table at an earlier-than-usual hour came down and brought the action to a swift end.
Will Nguyen be able to close out his incredible run and dispatch the last two heavy hitters sitting in front of him? Or will Vayo or Josephy get the right spot early and ride it out to their own main event title? Whatever happens, it’ll air in its entirety starting at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN and, if it’s anything like the first two days, should be a thrilling finish.
Chip counts and payouts
1. Qui Nguyen - 197.6 million in chips
2. Gordon Vayo - 89 million
3. Cliff Josephy - 50 million
Michael Ruane - $2,576,003 (Out in 4th)
Vojtech Ruzicka - $1,935,288 (Out in 5th)
Kenny Hallaert - $1,464,258 (Out in 6th)
Griffin Benger - $1,250,190 (Out in 7th)
Jerry Wong - $1,100,076 (Out in 8th)
Fernando Pons - $1 million (Out in 9th)